South African health officials are urging COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Aspen to keep its plant in the Eastern Cape province open. This follows a Reuters article quoting Aspen’s senior director saying they may have to shut down as there have been no orders for their rebranded COVID vaccine.
A South African-owned subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Aspen struck a deal with American company Johnson & Johnson in March to package, price, sell and distribute its vaccine in Africa.
This vaccine was rebranded as Aspenovax.
The move was hailed by many as there had been much concern about Africa’s reliance on imported vaccines which were often costly and at times in short supply.
But there have been no orders for Aspenovax. South Africa’s National Health Department Spokesperson Foster Mohale said the lack of orders is due to low vaccination rates not only at home, but globally.
“Vaccine hesitancy is one of the factors which contribute to these low vaccination rates or demand for more vaccines which also affect the production. Because obviously we understand that they are in a business, they can’t keep on producing vaccines when they know that the demand for vaccines is very low. So, we understand the situation where they are, and we sympathize with them,” he said.
Mohale said for now, South Africa has enough vaccines. He adds that in March, 100,000 vaccines expired. And more are due to expire in June and July.
However, he said that Aspen’s vaccine plant is important because no one knows what the future holds.
“We will try to engage them not to rush their decision precisely because we anticipate especially our scientists, our epidemiologists, we anticipate that the fifth wave might hit the country, South Africa, during the winter season which is a few weeks away from now. As you can see the number of daily COVID-19 patients has been rising for the past seven days,” he said.
Professor Petro Terblanche, who is the managing director of South African company, Afrigen, which in a continent-first made an mRNA COVID vaccine using Moderna’s data — said the situation at Aspen is a tragedy for the industry.
“This is just indicating again how important it is that this continent looks at policy reform. This is about how are we going to make sure that we give preferential procurement to local companies. How are we going to make sure that we create a marketplace and eco-system that will absorb local capacity? Otherwise, we will not have capacity locally in a sustainable manner and we’re going to get the next pandemic and we will be unprepared, and we will not have health security,” said Terblanche.
She believes money should also be put into educating people on the importance of vaccines.
“We need to ensure that we also put effort into advocacy for vaccination. Because we now have 17% of the continent that is vaccinated. We need to get them to at least 40% to ensure that we fully arrest this pandemic,” she said.
Mohale was unable to say when the Health Department would be meeting with Aspen’s executives.